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New cigarette tax makes lighting up in Bethel a lot more expensive

Ben Anderson
Courtesy Indi Samarajiva

You'd be hard-pressed to find anything in rural Alaska priced cheaper than in the population centers like Fairbanks and Anchorage. Cigarettes, however, have for several years been cheaper in the Southwest Alaska community of Bethel, thanks to high local taxes on each pack of cigarettes in Anchorage and the Matanuska Valley.

That all changed Dec. 11, when the Bethel City Council passed a new tax on cigarettes to the tune of $2.21 per pack. The tax hike comes on top of an existing $2-per-pack state cigarette tax, and brings the average price for a pack of cigarettes to nearly $11, making Bethel smokes among the priciest in the nation.

According to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, Anchorage had the fifth-highest rate of per-pack taxes on cigarettes in the nation as of July 2012, and Bethel now joins Alaska's largest city.

Laura Ellsworth, Nicotine Control and Research program manager with the Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corp., said community members at Tuesday’s council meeting seemed supportive of the new tax. Around 20 people spoke in favor of the tax, she said, while only two disagreed with it.

Ellsworth said that Bethel suffers from a higher-than-average rate of tobacco use among younger residents in the community of about 6,200.

“I think there are a variable number of things that go into why (the teen smoking rate) is so high, but we’re taking a stab at fixing it,” Ellsworth said. “What we do know in our region though is that there are really high rates of tobacco use in teens, and in youth in general.”

She said that there is a common-sense correlation between the price of cigarettes and the rate of teen smoking and use of other tobacco products -- as the price goes up, usage goes down.

That could be especially true in the Alaska Bush, where the cost of living is much higher than in cities and towns located on the road system.

Other tobacco products, like chewing tobacco and snuff, will see a tax increase of 45 percent of the wholesale price.

Ellsworth added that Bethel has previously been proactive in reducing tobacco use in the community, as well. In 1998, Bethel became the first town in Alaska to adopt smoke-free workplace laws.

The new tax doesn't go into effect until February, giving businesses -- and smokers -- a little time to adjust.

Bethel becomes just one of two rural Alaska communities with local cigarette excise taxes, joining Barrow, the northernmost city in the U.S. Taxes are also already in place in Fairbanks, Juneau, Anchorage, and the Mat-Su Borough. Alaska’s $2 per pack tax, even before any additional local taxes, makes it the 28th-highest per-pack cigarette tax in the country.

Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com